Religious Group says it has changed its ways
Like prodigal sons and daughters, The Children of God have returned.
After more than 20 years the “sex cult” of the 1960s is back in the United States, shorn, polished and with a new name, The Family.
For almost a year, they have been in a two-story house on a manicured 10-acre plot just north of Houston. They have been filtering into California for almost four years. They’re in suburban neighborhoods in Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, throughout the Midwest, in 21 communes in major metropolitan areas in the country.
They’re older now. They have children, scores of children. They estimate their membership at 9,000, and 6,000 of those are children from unions of their own members and from “flirty fishing,” the sexual seduction of potential converts that made them notorious.
They also bring a freshly scrubbed image, a public relations campaign and a lifestyle they say is now “more conservative than most middle-class American families.”
What they have not brought is their fugitive prophet, David Brant Berg.
He was last known to be in the United States in 1971, when he headed to London and exhorted his band of “Jesus Freaks” to leave the United States before California fell into the ocean and the Comet Kohutek brought about the end of America. That also was shortly after a New York crime commission, prodded by angry parents whose teen-agers had joined the cult, accused Berg of child molesting, fraud and several other crimes. He was not indicted.
The group scattered throughout the world then, taking their hippie philosophy of “free love” and their adopted name, The Children of God, with them. By 1976, they had become known as the world’s largest and only religious prostitution ring, a cult of about 12,000 that sent its young women and, less frequently, men out to win converts and gain donations with sex.
They were less widely known, but more infamous, for Berg’s views on sex with children. “Moses David” or “Dad,” as he is called in the group, and inner circle published reams of “Mo Letters” that advocated sex with toddlers, incest, intercourse between youngsters and adults, until girls reached the age of fertility then mutual masturbation or any sex act short of intercourse, until they reached the age of 16.
Those oracles, printed and reprinted in Berg’s numerous missives, eventually led to arrests of cult members in Spain, France, England, Australia and other countries, though those cases were never successfully prosecuted. Most recently, the group’s homes have been raided in Paraguay. In September, in one of the largest raids in the group’s history, 68 adult members of The Family were arrested in Buenos Aires, Argentina and 136 children were handed over to government homes.
In that case, Judge Roberto Marquevich found that 21 of the adults should be tried on charges ranging from child abuse to kidnapping of children. Marquevich’s order has been appealed to a superior court and that court will determine whether the adults will be tried.
On Thursday, a group of 50 lawyers and judges submitted a petition to Congress in Buenos Aires, calling for Marquevich’s impeachment and contending that he violated legal procedure in the case. The lawyers were joined by the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights, a national church group that accused Marquevich of a “Flagrant violation of human rights.”
Family members now say their image is distorted, that they are misunderstood by the public, misrepresented in the media and persecuted by watchdog groups such as the Chicago-based Cult Awarness Network. They have produced dozons of press releases to bolster their assertions and they have hired Houston attorney Mike DeGeurin, whose brother represented cult leader David Koresh, to represent them.
A BAN ON ‘FLIRTY FISHING’
Since 1987, they say, there has been no prostitution, or ‘flirty fishing,’ by their members. They say they no longer have sex with persons outside The Family; monogamous marriage (with only a few exceptions) is the rule; homosexuality is banned; the age of consent within The Family is 21; any sexual contact between an adult and a minor is an excommunicable offense and moreover, sex with and among children has never been advocated or allowed in The Family.
Their critics and exmembers, however, say they are lying about the past and don’t believe them about the present.
Indeed, Family members appear to be as wholesomely mainstream as they contend. Seated beneath an umbrella by an azure swimming pool on the well-kept grounds of The Family compound near Cleveland, Christie Richards, her husband, Ben, and Kay Spain are a pleasant, articulate trio.
About 25 of those are children, ranging from babies to adolescents. Nine of those children are Christie Richards’. All are well-dressed and well-mannered. None appears to have been abused.
Richards, 40, joined The Children of God 22 years ago. She embraced Berg’s teachings and she “flirty fished” with the rest of the young women in the group. She says she no longer does it, though she has no quarrel with the morality of her past.
“We were hippies and we came from the “free love” generation,” she said. “A lot of people were exploring their sexuality in the late 1960s and early 1970s and we were too.”
Under Berg’s tutelage, The Children of God was libertine. For more than a decade, members practiced prostitution outside the cult and open sex within.
It was not all they did. Members “witnessed” and passed out religious tracts on street corners and sought donations. They sold religious posters. They formed musical groups and produced and sold a number of music videos for children.
But “flirty fishing” won “friends” for the group and was a vital part of the economy of the communal homes. It became a refined technique and Berg and his lover, Maria, published a “how to” manual on the best way to hook and keep a fish.
At the same time, sex was not only for recruiting purposes. He wrote of “sharing love-up time” between members and having group sex.
Female members also were required to keep records of their “fish,” vital information about the men including their age, occupation, receptiveness to being approached, likes and dislikes and what was received from them. This information, say ex-members, was computerized and a profile for the best potential “fish” was worked out.
Statistics produced within the group and published for members only in April of 1988 showed 971,489 “Flirty Fishing” witness contacts (attempted seductions) in 10 years; 222,280 “fish loved” (sexual encounters) and 105,706 “souls won.”
“We made mistakes then and we’re different now, but “flirty fishing” was a way of showing love” said Richards. “It was a sacrificial way of reaching out to people. People needed something and we gave it to them. It was a way of showing God’s love.
“But it’s also something we stopped totally in 1987.”
That was the year of a great “Reformation and Revolution” in the group. It also was the year after a female member in Japan reportedly died of AIDS-related pneumonia. Richards and Spain agreed that AIDS was a deciding factor in The Family’s curtailment of prostitution.
At the same time The Family had come under scrutiny in many Third World countries and in South America, where it had become the only cult officially banned in Argentina.
The “reformation” was extreme, though possibly not as complete as described by Family members. A January 1990, letter from Maria, Berg’s second in command, ordered female members to require their “fish” to wear condoms. It also contained a section on “which outsiders to still have sex with!” and told them to restrict their outside sexual activities to men in the “well-known” category.
Much of Berg’s more lurid literature was ordered destroyed in 1987, however, among it was “The Davidito Letter.”
“THE DAVIDITO LETTER’
“The Davidito Letter,” published among The Children of God’s mailings in 1978, was an account by group member Sara Davidito of her child-rearing practices with the 3-year-old son of Berg’s lover, Maria. The boy reportedly was fathered by a waiter in Tenerife during a “flirty fishing” union in the Canary Islands.
In it she writes of and is pictured having oral sex with the child. There are pictures of the child masturbating and being placed in a copulatory position with a small girl. The nurse writes of the boy sitting by while three couples, including his mother, have group sex. She describes giving him “swigs of wine” so he would “get happy,” then climbing into bed with him and asking if he was “in the mood.”
It goes on to describe the little boy at a later date attempting intercourse with a female playmate on a staircase.
Richards’ husband said he had never seen the letter until a reporter showed him a copy and having seen it, “It’s not something I’d want to try to defend. I couldn’t tolerate this sort of thing.”
Christie Richards said she had seen the publication, but that it was not widely disseminated within the group and not regarded as a guideline for rearing children.
“I remember the letter,” said Richards. “Granted, it was extreme. But it was never distributed that widely and a lot of people, like my husband, may never have seen it. To me, it seemed pretty far out. I heard of some people taking this as a green light for sex with children, but those were individual cases.
“It was never meant as something we had to follow and I know a lot of people disregarded it.
“The fact is, we’ve gotten older and we’re a much more conservative group now. And we’re very concerned about being totally legal. We absolutely do nothing illegal now.”
Former members disagree with Richards’ description of the letter as largely disregarded and say sex with and among children was common in the cult.
Abigail Berry, 20, who ran away from The Family in Argentina two years ago after being brought up in the cult, can quote from the letter and says she remembers it from her childhood.
“It was the child care manual for The Children of God,” she said. “Everybody knew it.”
Berry, a witness in the current trial in Argentina, said she was first molested at age 7 by an adult, had intercourse at age 12, again with an adult as an induction into womanhood and was touched and fondled long after the reformation of 1987.
Berry fled the group in March 1991. She said she first approached a lawyer (“my mother’s fish”) who had offered to help her, but the man raped and beat her, took her passport and kept her in his apartment for two months.
Eventually, she said, she managed to contact the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Airies, filed charges against the attorney and was sent to the United States to live with a great uncle and aunt she had never met. Her parents and two brothers remain in The Family.
“I tried to see them and they would only talk to me with other Family members there,” she said. “My brother called me a ‘Judas’ and a traitor. They know how to reach me, but they never call me. It’s like I had to give up my family to get out.”
She has been denounced by the group as promiscuous and unbalanced, but prosecutors in Buenos Airies believed her and based much of their case on her testimony.
Cherish Lloyd, 19, who left the group a little less than two years ago, also remembers verbatim passages from the Davidito letter and said it was used extensively when she was small.
“Sara Davidito was in charge of child care instructions for the entire family,” said Lloyd. “Everybody knew the Davidito Letter and I didn’t know a single child who wasn’t sexually molested in one way or another.”
Other, disenchanted former members such as Miriam Padilla, 19, who left within the past year and currently lives in London, give similar accounts and say children in the group were encouraged and sometimes forced to have sex with each other and with adult members.
The ex-members agree, however, that drastic changes took place in 1987 and that the Davidito letter and many of Berg’s other writings about sex were burned.
Among them was “Heaven’s Girl,” a primer for teen-age girls that was supposed to project a role model for them. In the illustrated text, the young girl seduces converts, is gang-raped then wins her attackers over through love.
“Let’s make this sexy, really sexy,” Berg told his artists in recorded instruction he gave for the book. “She’ll do a lot of FFing and…shouldn’t she meet me before I die? Shouldn’t she be in bed with me?
“She’s your creation. Handle her any way you want. Boy, I know how I’d like to handle her!”
Jonathan Gilligan, 18, who left The Family in London last February, said there have been great changes in the cult in the last few years and he believes child abuse and prostitution no longer occur in the group.
In fact, he said, the atmosphere for teen-agers has become austere, leading a number of them to rebel.
Those who do are sent to “Victor” camps, where they are put on a strict regiment, forced to read “Mo Letters” for hours at a time and retrained in The Family principles.
“The abuse is more a sort of brain-washing now,” said Gilligan. “The thing is, the same person (Berg) who was the leader of it before is still the leader now. He’s never been brought to justice for any of the things he did and there’s no reason to believe he’s changed.”
THE TIMES A’CHANGING
Family members say not so much that Berg or his teachings have changed, but that they have. They began their return to the United States four years ago, said Richards, and they plan to remain. To do so and function as a group, they realize they must shed their old image and their newly adopted open-house policies are an effort to achieve that.
Beyond that, Family members were among the first to arrive to help with relief efforts in Florida after Hurricane Andrew. They were invited to the White House by President Bush after that and sang at a White House reception last Christmas.
Within the past year they also have submitted to various studies by psychologists and sociologists, a number of whom give favorable accounts of what they have found.
Lawrence Lilliston, chairman of the psychology department at Oakland University in California, wrote after a live-in study in 1993 that “there is absolutely no evidence for child abuse among these children.” Lilliston says, however, that he did not interview former members and discounts their stories as biased and unreliable.
Dr. Stuart Wright, a sociologist at Lamar University in Texas, said he visited two communes for approximately a week at a time and found the children apparently “very healthy emotionally and psychologically.” Wright said his study is continuing and has not been completed.
And Dr. Ralph Underwager of the Institute for Psychological Therapies in Minnesota supplied an affidavit for The Family when their members were on trial in France last year, stating the group “is not guilty of abuse upon children.”
“I did qualify that, however” said Underwager, “by adding that that finding was based only on the data I reviewed and all the data I was asked to review was supplied by The Family.”
One researcher they do not cite is Dr. Steven Kent, a University of Alberta sociologist who has written extensively about the group and believes child abuse was once rampant, even if it has now ceased. “Critics will remain skeptical about this group until they acknowledge that these things took place and identify the victims and get help for them and identify the people who did it,” said Kent.
“Maybe they have changed,” said Berry. “Maybe they’ve had to and maybe things are different now. But, even if they are, what about us? What about the things they’ve taken from us? I’ve lost my family.
“When you grow up in The Children of God you may learn a lot about sex, but you’re virtually sheltered from a lot of things you need to know. You don’t see magazines or television. You can’t go to college and you don’t learn how to make a living on your own.
“And what about the man who’s responsible for all of this?”